Stacks

Stacks is a new web app from Offset that helps users curate and share the apps and services they love. You login via Twitter and then create a stack. Simple.

My Mac Essentials stack
My Mac Essentials stack

Stacks makes it trivial to add app’s, products and services and for the user to maintain the stack. Once done, add some tags and publish it. So far I’ve made three stacks – Mac Essentials, Podcast Tools and iOS Homescreen. I’d like ability to add links and also icons and a search rather than relying on tags would be handy but it is new so not a big deal right now.

I like the low barrier of entry of Stacks and hopefully it will hang around as it’s a great curation tool. Currently invite only but you can request one from the Stacks site or let me know as I’ve got a spare one. What would you add to your Stacks?

Backpocket

The Apple Watch was expected, the MacBook not so much, and Apple’s key note was all the better for it. Much of my reading this week was dominated by the Apple announcements but there are a few other gems in there.

The birth of xbox live

Great article from Russ Pitts at Polygon that details Xbox Live and the bets that Microsoft made all those years ago.

I still remember getting on the beta service for Xbox Live. Moto GP was the game and that first time on Xbox Live felt so alien. With the headset on I could hear others but talking felt wrong. I quickly realised it’s potential as the first couple of sessions saw me racing the Moto GP developers. Xbox Live was awesome!

A couple of hours later and Live’s true future was realised when I heard the words ‘get out the way ya fannie’. Two young Glaswegians were also on the beta and thought it was hilarious to curse and swear to everyone in the room.

The highs and lows of Xbox Live.

Fibretastic

So I’ve switched back to Virgin Media. Back in 2008, frustrated by some IP issues and throttling, I moved from Virgin Media to O2 broadband. There was also the issue of cost. O2 were offering up to 16Mb for £10 a month, Virgin at the time were 20Mb for £37 a month so quite a difference. So after two years why switch?

The main reason is speed. The image above is a test on my new connection this morning. A true 50Mb down but more importantly, 4.6Mb upload. Wowsers. Since leaving, Virgin Media’s XXL package has been upgraded from 20Mb to 50Mb. Nothing else on the market at the moment can touch this for download speed. Speedtest’s are all well and good – how’s the real world performance? Very good over the last week. Video’s, podcasts and, ermmm, ‘other’ large downloads are all delivered in record breaking time. I did some testing with DNS and I’ve kept with OpenDNS as I still find them the fastest option comparing them with ISP’s own DNS and also Google DNS.

One of the issues with faster download speeds though is that upload speeds have never kept pace and so much of what I do, and want to do more of, is dependant on uploading. Uploading podcasts, uploading photo’s and HD video from the 550D and cloud backups. All take a considerable amount of time when you’ve only got 1Mb upload speeds. Virgin earlier this year announced an upgrade for everyone’s upload speeds so the XXL package now comes with 5Mb upload. Looking at the speed test above I am very nearly getting that and it is making a tremendous difference. Cloud backups and photo uploads are now four times faster. Considering some of the Flickr set uploads can take over an hour you can see how much a difference it makes. It also makes cloud backup a more realistic option. If your using Virgin Media, visit http://192.168.100.1/CmOpConfig.asp (your modems configuration page) to find out what upload and download speeds your modem is currently operating at.

All this speed though comes with conditions. Firstly, £35 a month is a lot more than the £10 a month I was paying to O2. However O2 have recently changed their broadband tiers so I was likely to move to £20 a month with O2. Secondly, all tiers on Virgin have traffic management. During peak periods p2p and newsgroup traffic is throttled to protect other services. A lot of people cry fowl over this but I’d rather have that than a broadband service that is ruined by people stealing content which if we’re honest is the vast vast majority of p2p and newsgroup traffic. I know the complainers point to legitimate reasons for p2p and newsgroups but that just doesn’t wash. I’d rather have fast web, video , voice and game traffic over a totally unmanaged service.

Another aspect of Virgin’s traffic management is that your connection speed can be throttled depending on how much you download and now also upload. The table above is taken from Virgins current traffic management help page. Downloads on XXL aren’t throttled at all but if you have the new upload speeds they are. However it’s only after you’ve uploaded 6GB that the speeds is temporarily throttled back to 1.5Mb. Pretty generous and not going to be an issue for me. Any backups that I do will be scheduled for times when I’m not likely to be using the connection.

Another reason for moving was a deterioration in the service from O2. Not only were average speeds starting to drop but connections were being lost every couple of days. I can accept slow but I hate when the service goes down. The internet connection is used for so much now that I hate unreliability.

Overall I’m delighted with the service but as with all things it’s early days. Over the next 12-18 months Virgin are rolling out 100Mb down, 10Mb up for £43 a month. I’ll see how the cloud backups progress before deciding if it’s worthwhile moving as the speed at the moment is plenty enough for me. It’s interesting looking back to when I first got broadband and it was 1/2Mb down and that was plenty fast. Times change – i wonder what speed (and provider) I’ll be with in 2012?

New Digs

Consolidation. It’s a wonderful thing. After much postponing it was time to not only move from current host A Small Orange but also move my domain from 34SP. No real problem with either service provider – I’d just rather host everything at the one place which is Dreamhost. Since setting up with them last year for the podcast, I’ve had a couple of issues when they went through a network upgrade and then suffered a pretty big attack in May. The service for me is good value for money for the features and speed that I get.

So last Monday I kicked off the domain transfer (still not complete) and managed to quickly lose access to my e-mail, website etc. One day I’ll learn! However it didn’t take long to get back up and running. Exporting/importing in WordPress worked extremely well and it didn’t take long to get plugin’s and the theme installed.

Scarily, it’s almost seven years since I bought iand.net and stared the blog and it was the year before (16th Jan, 2002) that I first blogged at shweepa.net. Time flies.

Rob Jarvis Photography

Do a search for Rob Jarvis photography and you’ll turn up his website, which seems to be mainly a Facebook page, his Flickr stream, Twitter account etc etc etc. You’ll see a wide variety of great photographs. You’ll also find he’s copyrighted those photo’s which seems a sensible step. Protect his IP and all that malarky. Except, not all the photo’s are his. Some have been stolen from Flickr users. In fact, there’s nothing to prove that any of those photo’s are his.

Meg Pickard tweeted that Rob had copied one of her photo’s and copyrighted it as his on Facebook. Theft. I along with a few other left reviews on Facebook, comments and reported the page. Rob quickly took the reviews down, deleted comments and removed a couple of the photo’s that had been mentioned by commenters – some things you can’t remove though.

You can also find a copy of some of the comments made before they were deleted here – http://www.flickr.com/photos/version-3-point-1/4263212273/. Hopefully Facebook will look at the complaints people have made and act accordingly. Would be nice if Rob actually commented on his theft, owned up, apologised even. I doubt it. Meg followed up with a thoughtful post on copyright theft. Well worth a read. I never restrict anything on Flickr, thinking none of my images are worth anything anyway but then again, if they were used it would be nice to get the credit. Something to think about. Looking forward to that apology Rob.

Tuesday Linkage

Some site’s and tools that have been helpful over last few days:

  • How to setup Google Mail properly on your iPhone – great guide and ensures folders are aligned properly.
  • Brusheezy – Free Photoshop brushes. Also work with tools like Pixelmator.
  • 5 Tips For Making Great iPhone Photos – Handy guide on how to get the best out of the iPhone’s limited hardware. From the same author, here is his iPhone photo gallery.
  • Philips Carousel – An amazing advert for Philip’s new not so amazing TV. To really appreciate it watch it full screen.
  • Presto – Really interesting Linux O/S that can boot in just over 10 seconds. Will install on work PC as it could be really handy when travelling.
  • TripIt – I travel with work 2-3 times a month and it always involves e-mails, prints etc. I’ve known of TripIt but never used it until now. I simply forward my travel e-mails onto the service and my itinerary is built for me. I can get an RSS of the details, an iCal calendar that I can subscribe to and there’s a free iPhone app that allows me to get all my travel details on the move. There’s a social network aspect that I haven’t taken advantage of yet but I’m impressed so far.

OnLive - A new Era?

GDC is currently in full flow and the biggest story for me has been OnLive. The press conference from GDC is very impressive. New titles available over the internet instantly. No downloading, no patching, any platform. Run on an inexpensive micro-console connected to a TV via HDMI or in a browser using a plugin on low specification Mac’s or PC’s. How?

The game isn’t played locally. You connect to a server and the game is played there. What your seeing on your TV or computer screen is streamed video. The concept just sounds so….wrong. Technically it sounds like an impossible proposition. Lag, key to an enjoyable online game, would surely kill the service.

Watching the launch presentation and the lag issue is addressed. Typical video lag is quoted as 500ms. OnLive have developed a system where video lag is 1ms. The service is demo’d and certainly looks quick enough with no lag. There looks to be a little lag during the Crysis demo though. However, remember this is Crysis running on a low end Dell. Admittedly it’s not running at a high resolution or frame rate but none the less it looks extremely playable. The other demo host then joins in a multiplayer game via the micro console. Again a very seamless experience is demonstrated and it certainly all looks impressive. The servers are located 50 miles form where the demo takes place. Not that far away. During the Q&A the developers quoted 1000 miles as being the current maximum distance for the service to remain playable.

One other key difference is how visual the service looks. A great 3d interface. Video streams showing games that your friends are currently playing, something that I’ve wanted for years looks to be finally available. Demo’s that don’t take an hour to download – they start almost immediately. The end to patching. The end of piracy! The end of cheating via patches and add-ons!! Games that you no longer need to buy – renting a game is finally an easy option with no need to download

At this point, taken on face value, this is a game changer. Zero hardware costs to play the latest games on consoles. No more upgrading to the latest 3d hardware on PC’s and Mac’s. I still smell bullshit though. A company can develop this and be in stealth for seven years. Really?

I still have issues with lag and also bandwidth requirements. I really can’t see lag not being a show stopper with this service. The requirements for OnLive are also going to blow many people’s bandwidth cap’s. Playing online with a console or computer at the moment needs just a 1/2Mbps connection. For SD, OnLive requires a 1.5Mbps connection and for HD it needs 5.0Mbps. SD was described as Wii equivalent and HD as 720p, 60fps. A consistent 5Mbps connection would quickly use up VirginMedia’s download limits and hence throttle the connection to make OnLive unplayable and that just an example for one broadband provider. Faster connections are coming but many come with very restrictive download limits with OnLive would need to address.

I also think there will be cost issues. Low cost entry was emphasised but a monthly subscription before games are bought/rented is not everyone’s cup of tea.

The hardware needed to run this must also be massive. They talked about custom chips and virtualisation but to run that many game instances, to decode video that quickly and serve out that much data so quickly. Just doesn’t seem possible as it’s such a leap over what anyone else is doing right now. Surely the video will be compressed and show artefacts. Look at the many HD video that can be downloaded or streamed now as an example. Definitely low par compared to current gaming expectations. What about surround sound which is now standard on console games. Surely a 5Mbps stream couldn’t provide a 720p stream with surround sound audio as well?

It must be bull.

But then look at the companies signed up to the service – EA, THQ, Ubisoft, Take2, Warner Bros, Epic, Eidos, Atari, Codemasters, 2D Boy, Crytek. The games shown weren’t old 2d games either. Crysis, Hawx, GRID, Burnout and many current FPS’s. Then remember the demo’s looked really good.

We won’t have long to find out. A beta launches in America in summer 09 with a launch in winter 09. Disappointing but understandable that it’s America only at the moment. I really want this to work. It could change the games market radically. Based on current knowledge though I can’t see it working. Time will tell and I can’t wait to see what happens.

Spotify

I’m a bit late to the party but now that I’m here I’m so glad I came. Spotify is a music service that, via a small local client, gives you access to a massive library of music. Legitimately. For free. The music is streamed but the quality is excellent and also very fast. This would be so so if the music library was small but it’s not. Having done deals with Universal Music Group, Sony, BMG, EMI Music, Warner Music Group and others means there is a massive amount of content. There are some noticeable absentees like The Beatles, latest Radiohead etc but that’s not a big surprise nor detracts from Spotify.

Spotify Artist Radio

So in the short time I’ve used it what do I like about it? Firstly the massive library. I’m looking for obscure tracks and more often than not you find them. The application itself is easy to use with a simple and clean interface. Reminds me of Pandora which you can’t get in the UK anymore unless you work around it’s blocks. The home page let’s you see new additions (how bad is the new U2 track?) and also see top tens from everywhere or by location. The link to the U2 track is a Spotify link – click on it to listen to the track in Spotify – a nice way of sending music to friends but not the only way.

Spotify Playlists

You can create playlist’s in Spotify just like you can in iTunes. Create a playlist, search for tracks and then drag them to the playlist. Nothing too ground breaking. Once created though, right clicking on a list will allow you to select an HTTP link or a Spotify URI. You can then send the link to friends or publish on the internet. Clicking on the link will load up the playlist in Spotify – really simple and a lot better than a mixtape or best off list – here’s my tracks of 2008. Another option available is Collaborative Playlists. Selecting this will turn the playlist into a shared list that any user can contribute to. So at the moment I have a Lickers playlist that our gaming community can share music in and an Ian’s Inbox playlist. Hopefully other people will use that playlist to send me music that they think I will like or should try. That idea looks to have stemmed from here originally.

Spotify Artist

Searching for an artist will quickly bring you to the artist page which shows their tops hits, discography and a biography. Searching for Chemical Brothers as above shows all the tracks available on Spotify from their albums and EP’s and also compilation albums that have their tracks – great for listening to similar types of music and finding new artists. Also available is Artist radio which plays tracks from the selected artist and also artists similar to them – Last.fm has much the same service. Speaking of Last.fm, Spotify client also scrobbles to your last.fm account which is handy. You can also use the Radio in Spotify which has some nice simple filters. Select a decade ot two, then select a few genre’s and press play. Great variety although with that there are some real stinkers that are selected for playback. Even though it’s a streaming service it’s quick to click on to the next track with little or no pausing between tracks.

Spotify Radio

I mentioned that Spotify is free but that does mean accepting adverts being displayed in the client and also audio adverts every 10 or so tracks. So far they haven’t been distracting and are far less intrusive than the commercial radio stations in the UK. There are also two pay for access options. The Day Pass costs £0.99 and gives you ad-free access to Spotify for 24 hours. Premium costs £9.99 per month and removes the ad’s and also gives you access to a lot more invites. For now free is working great for me.

While Spotify has really impressed me there’s always room for improvements? Playlist’s need folders as I can see that growing massively over time. I’d also like some more info on the collaborative playlists – highlight new tracks added, show the user who added them and how many people are subscribed to the playlist. I guess that’s the surprising miss so far – no social networking aspect. I’d have thought a friends list within the app or website would be a must – see what friends are listening too, automatically share this playlist with all friends, make a collaborative playlist friends only or public. Would become quite a powerful tool with those additions. Collaborative rating of tracks anyone?

It would be fantastic to stream Spotify music to 360’s, PS3’s or DLNA supporting boxes. I’ve created some playlists on the PS3 for Wipeout. I’ve got 3 or 4 covering the original versions of the game plus a couple for new rock and electronic music. How great would it be if I could create the playlist in Spotify, be able to play that back on the PS3 and also share that list out so others could use it too. Mmmm. I wonder if I could use Connect 360, iTunes and something like Nicecast to stream Spotify to the 360? Nicecast to create the audio stream from Spotify, subscribe to it in iTunes and listen to it via Connect 360 on the Xbox 360. Might try that later today.

I guess adding features would start to clutter up the client which I like due to its simplicity. No equalizer and minimal control set. Currently Spotify is only available on Mac and PC’s. No web streaming available and no mobile client either. I think this would be great on the iPhone and offer unique features that the other music streaming app’s don’t currently offer. No official word although the support forums hint at something may be coming soon to the iPhone. Here’s hoping.

There’s also a number of web sites springing up to help with the sharing of playlists. Spotifylists.com, Listiply, Spotylist and Spotyshare all offer much the same playlist sharing functionality. Topsify shares the current UK Top 40 as well as Swedish and US charts. I also have it on good authority from Windows users that Replay Music is a great way of saving mp3’s from Spotify. Not tried it myself so ymmv. Another app worth trying is Mixifier which let’s you easily share Spotify playlists with Facebook friends.

Highly recommended app and service. I have a few invites left at the moment so drop a comment with an e-mail address and I’ll send out invites to whom I can. If you do join, or are already using Spotify, drop off some recommendations in my inbox.

Twitter Goes Mainstream

Over the last few weeks there’s been a noticeable change while using Twitter. Not in the service itself although it has had a few hiccups which I haven’t really seen for months. No, it’s in the people using it. Non geeks are using it. Celebrities are using it. Heck, even the British press have found out about it and are now quoting it. Great.

Well, I thought so. However I’ve read a few blog posts and tweets saying that Twitter has lost it, it’s jumped the shark, it’s time to leave, the world is ending, I don’t know how I can cope. The usual blogger faire. While you can’t stop people having their own opinions on this the bit I don’t get is Twitter, like all social networking tools, is whatever you want it to be. If you use to connect with friends then follow only them and keep away from the celebs, the news networks and the tech industry trendsetters that can be quite noisy. Don’t like someone’s tweets – unfollow them. I really don’t see what the issue is?

I follow people I know in real life, bloggers that I enjoy reading, some of ‘the celebs’ who are actually conversing on Twitter (@stephenfry, @wossy, @bobbyllew ), some of the Mac community and some of the noisy tech crowd. At the moment this is giving me a great mix of tweets and I get a lot out of Twitter. The only real dislikes I have are the spammers that are trying to build massive networks and folk who keep on tweeting about their latest blog posts. It’s called RSS!

Another aspect of Twitter that’s been discussed elsewhere is it’s news carrying worth. This week has had a few ‘popular’ news stories. The deaths of Patrick McGoohan, Ricardo Montalban (KAAAHHHHHHHHHHHNNNN was a fairly popular tweet) and then the Steve Jobs illness all exploded on Wednesday. I couldn’t believe how many people were tweeting on Steve Jobs as it broke, first questioning it, then confirming it and then adding their own comments. However those stories were nothing compared to the Hudson plane crash landing. Oh, and this picture. Taken from an iPhone of all things. Yes, the one with the crappy camera. Just shows that being in the right place at the right time is what really makes the difference. I’m a bit of a news junkie so having stories break and unfold in real time is very addictive. That picture was doing the rounds on Twitter while mainstream news sites were just breaking the story never mind showing pictures. It was the same during the Mumbai attack – Twitter and Flickr provided so much on what was really happening on the ground from people really affected. You just have to watch as people will take advantage and lie about what’s going on, making it difficult to separate fact from fiction.

The Twitter picture made the BBC 10 O’Clock news yesterday and has been blogged about too by the BBC. The real question from mainstream media is around Twitter being a reliable news source? For me it’s as reliable as any blog (so take some things with a pinch of salt) and how do you determine if mainstream media is accurate? Would you say that everything in the papers is true? The Daily Record have been using Andy Murray’s tweets as the basis for a few articles recently, quoting that Andy ‘has told the Record’ where in actual fact he’s published a tweet. No doubt the Daily Mail will turn Twitter into some sort of national threat, a place full of shady folk doing shady things. A breeding ground for sexual deviants. What, you mean it’s not? Already the press are crawling over Jonathon Ross as in a tweet he asked for a word to drop in during the Bafta’s as if it’s oh so shocking and it shouldn’t be allowed. Sigh.

Now that I’m tweeting regularly I don’t think I’ll be stopping any time soon – I enjoy it too much. It’s another tool to communicate with like IM, e-mail, blogs and forums. Just don’t believe everything you read and unfollow what you don’t like. Roll on my 1000th tweet.